Ask most people what they associate with the Tudor navy and the answer will probably be the Spanish Armada and the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose. But England’s 16th‑century maritime fighting force, developed by Henry VIII and continued by his successors, has far more significance for English history than simply these two landmark events.
Sea battles in the medieval period were rare and tended to be fought close to shore, usually taking the form of galley skirmishes sparked by coastal raids. But naval warfare underwent major changes during the course of the 16th century, and the advent of heavy artillery made a huge difference to combat at sea.
Henry VIII, known to many as the ‘father of the Royal Navy’, was the first king to make a concerted effort to turn England into a sea power to be reckoned with, realising that command of the sea was crucial to any successful military campaign.
“Henry always intended to fight the French,” says David Loades ,“and he knew that getting his fleet to sea before the enemy would give him an enormous advantage.”
Having a standing navy, rather than one that had to be assembled from scratch for every campaign, would serve this purpose best and, with this in mind, Henry increased his fleet from five ships to around 40 by the time of his death in 1547. “Although Henry VII started a programme of building warships for a navy,” says Loades, “it was his son who shaped it.”
Henry’s navy saw action off Brittany in 1512 and 1513 and raided the French coast in 1522 and 1523. It also mounted summer and winter patrols against pirates during the 1520s and 1530s. Meanwhile, Henry’s break with Rome in 1534 saw England at serious risk of an invasion endorsed by the pope, and the fleet was mobilised during an invasion scare in 1539, although it did not see any action.
Says Loades: “Ships were built mostly in various small yards along the Thames and the Medway, with several constructed at Woolwich. There were also yards at Portsmouth and Southampton, where the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate, among others, were built at the beginning of Henry’s reign. These differed from their predecessors in that many of them were larger (500–1,000 tons), and they were customised warships, built with gun decks.”
But while Henry VIII was passionate about increasing the size of his sea army – seeing its primary function as taking the fight to France – Elizabeth I was more preoccupied with tackling piracy, and with a potential war with Spain. Huge ships like the Mary Rose, and the even larger Henry Grace Dieu, were too slow and unwieldy to keep up with the smaller, faster pirate ships, so Elizabeth specialised in building galleons of various sizes, suitable both for oceanic travel and confronting Spain in the New World.
“Elizabeth never made any recorded decision about the size of her navy, but was advised by her council that it should not exceed 30 ships”, says Loades. “Warships were expensive to maintain, whether they were in use or not, so the navy stayed at about that level through the 1560s and 1570s, and was adequate for what it was asked to do. By 1580, however, it had been overtaken by events, as war with Spain loomed closer, so it was increased to about 60 ships.
“However, less than half the fleet deployed against the Spanish Armada in 1588 was actually owned by the queen; the rest were contributed by merchants and courtiers, as had been done before in times of emergency. Economy was always in the front of Elizabeth’s mind, as her resources were so limited.”
Elizabeth was also a keen supporter of exploratory voyages, and loaned ships to adventurers when they were not urgently required for military duties. Among these was Sir Martin Frobisher, who made three voyages to the New World to look for a new sea route through the Arctic Ocean. Sir Francis Drake, the most famous of all Tudor explorers, was popular with both queen and country for his services to England as second-in-command of the fleet against the Spanish Armada, and for his circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580.
As well as successfully defending England from foreign invasion, the Tudor navy was largely responsible for creating the enduring image of England as a great maritime power.
It was during this time, too, that English mariners developed the confidence to undertake long-distance voyages and the navigational skills necessary for them. “The legacy of the Tudor navy was a highly developed infrastructure, and a culture of success”, says Loades. “Both of these were severely dented under the early Stuarts, but survived in the mythology of ‘good Queen Bess’s glorious days’ to inspire the navy of the Commonwealth and Restoration periods.”
Eight other places associated with the Tudor navy
The Tudor House and Gardens, Southampton
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